With Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, Canonical will replace Ubuntu’s touch-enabled Unity8 “convergence” desktop with GNOME, thereby abandoning its mobile ambitions.
Ubuntu’s Unity desktop and its related Ubuntu Phone project were always long-shots, so it was not unexpected that Canonical would eventually call a retreat. That is exactly what Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth did in an April 5 blog post in which he announced plans for Ubuntu to replace Canonical’s homegrown Unity desktop with the GNOME environment used during most of Ubuntu’s history. Canonical will “end its investment” in Unity8 and switch back to GNOME with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, due in April 2018.
Shuttleworth did not explicitly call for the end of the Ubuntu Phone project, but Ubuntu Phone is built on Unity and its touch interface. Only a few Ubuntu driven smartphones reached market, and only one official tablet.
Ubuntu convergence and multi-windowing with BQ Aquaris M10 Tablet
(click image to enlarge)
The “Ubuntu Touch” mobile devices could recognize Bluetooth keyboard and mice, and automatically scale up to a monitor display complete with “side stage” multi-windowing for different apps. However, the ultimate convergence goal of letting developers write a single Ubuntu Unity application that would work seamlessly on desktops, servers, tablets, and phones was never fully realized.
Unity was developed in part in response to widespread unhappiness with the buggy, resource-hogging GNOME 3 release in 2011. Like Unity, GNOME 3 departed from the standard Linux desktop traditions in favor of a UI that would also be able to eventually work on touch-enabled mobile devices. GNOME 3 improved over the years, but most Ubuntu users have opted for the lighter-weight Ubuntu MATE, based on GNOME 2.
Presumably, Canonical will run with the GNOME 3 release that is available now as an alternative build, but we doubt they can resist tinkering with it. Many users, of course, will continue to use Ubuntu MATE or other options.
Ars Technica quoted Canonical Community Manager Michael Hall as saying that Canonical would also be switching from its homegrown Mir display server technology to Wayland, which has become something of a Linux standard outside of Ubuntu. Hall also confirmed that mobile development in general was being terminated.
The long rode to convergence
Canonical’s mobile plans were hampered by the same forces that doomed Mozilla’s more popular Firefox OS phone project, as well as Jolla’s Sailfish OS and Samsung’s Tizen. The biggest culprit was the success of Android and its app ecosystem. (Samsung is once again hinting at a greater Tizen mobile push beyond the handful of existing Tizen phones, although recent reports of flagrant security vulnerabilities in Tizen may give consumers pause.)
BQ Aquaris E4.5
Most of these open phone Linux mobile projects targeted the developing world, where users were eager to advance beyond Nokia’s fading Symbian-based feature phones. Many believed that the Linux-based Android could never be made to effectively run on limited hardware, or that the phones could be priced so low. They were wrong. Even the failure of Microsoft’s Windows Phone benefited Android and Apple’s resilient iOS more than it did the newcomers, which never offered enough apps to compete.
Canonical, however, was also targeting the high-end market where it gambled on the advantage of its devoted fanbase. Yet, many of those loyal desktop users opted for Ubuntu MATE or other desktops instead of Unity, and only a few bought Ubuntu smartphones. From the start of the convergence campaign back in 2011, many Ubuntu developers and other tech-savvy Ubuntu users resisted Canonical’s push for the adolescent, touch-ready Unity interface, which did little for their non-touch desktops.
Ubuntu developers were also unhappy with the switch from the X.org windowing environment to Mir while the rest of the open source community was switching to Wayland. Delays with Mir in turn delayed the maturity of Unity. Convergence officially arrived a year ago in Ubuntu 16.04 “Xenial Xerus” LTS, but the tech world shrugged, as it had already moved on to the Internet of Things.
Canonical was further challenged by the ambitious nature of its convergence quest. As Microsoft found out with similar convergence attempts with Windows Phone, the mobile/touch paradigm is entirely different than the mouse and keyboard desktop experience. PC sales may be down, but the old paradigm still drives most of the actual work that’s done in the world, including Linux development.
In his blog, Shuttleworth seemed to acknowledge that Unity had resulted in more dis-unity than unity in the Ubuntu community. “I took the view that, if convergence was the future and we could deliver it as free software, that would be widely appreciated both in the free software community and in the technology industry, where there is substantial frustration with the existing, closed, alternatives available to manufacturers,” wrote Shuttleworth. “I was wrong on both counts. In the community, our efforts were seen [as] fragmentation not innovation. And industry has not rallied to the possibility, instead taking a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to those form factors, or investing in home-grown platforms. What the Unity8 team has delivered so far is beautiful, usable and solid, but I respect that markets, and community, ultimately decide which products grow and which disappear.”
The silver lining for Canonical is the continuing success of Ubuntu on server and cloud platforms, as well as its snap package management technology and snap-enabled, Ubuntu Core distribution for IoT. Shuttleworth stated that Canonical would invest in growth areas, including “Ubuntu itself, for desktops, servers and VMs, our cloud infrastructure products (OpenStack and Kubernetes), our cloud operations capabilities (MAAS, LXD, Juju, BootStack), and our IoT story in snaps and Ubuntu Core.”
The transaction-enabled snap mechanism, which can work across embedded, server, cloud, and desktop platforms, has essentially become the new fulcrum of Ubuntu convergence. So far, it’s most commonly deployed on embedded devices via the lightweight, snap-enabled Ubuntu Core distro. Ubuntu Core runs on a growing list of embedded devices including the Nextcloud private server box and the LimeSDR software defined radio device, which recently became the CrowdSupply crowdfunding site’s first $1 million project.
Some customers are adding only the snap mechanism without the Ubuntu. For example, Shenzhen Xunlong is using snap to build an online store of Linux apps for its Orange Pi SBC customers that supports both Ubuntu and Ubuntu Core, as well as other distributions.
The container-like, transaction-enabled snaps allow developers to quickly create, package, test, and distribute self-contained applications based on the thousands of existing Ubuntu and Linux libraries. Many see snaps and Ubuntu Core as solutions for building app ecosystems for IoT, and reducing Linux fragmentation, as well as solving the problem of security vulnerabilities on IoT devices.